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Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray Shares His “Journey to the South Pacific”

  Journey to the South Pacific, a new 3D IMAX film now in theaters, takes moviegoers on an adventure through the island paradise of remote West Papua, a province of Indonesia in the Coral Triangle. Narrated by Cate Blanchett, the film tells the story of Jawi Mayor, a young island boy who discovers the incredible diversity...


In a scene from Journey to the South Pacific, young islander Jawi Mayor swims with a whale shark. © 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films

Journey to the South Pacific, a new 3D IMAX film now in theaters, takes moviegoers on an adventure through the island paradise of remote West Papua, a province of Indonesia in the Coral Triangle.

Narrated by Cate Blanchett, the film tells the story of Jawi Mayor, a young island boy who discovers the incredible diversity of life in the ocean around his home, thanks to a voyage of a boat called the Kalabiawhich sails to remote islands and brings teachers who provide hands-on education about reefs.

Ocean Views spoke with Greg MacGillivray, an Academy Award nominee who co-directed the film. MacGillivray is president of California-based MacGillivray Freeman Films, which has produced more than 30 IMAX films, including The Living Sea (1995), Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk (2008), and Coral Reef Adventure (2003).

The company has reportedly shot over 7 million feet of 70 mm (IMAX) film, the most in cinema history.

How did you get the idea for this film?

I had heard about the boat, the Kalabia. I think I read an article about it, and I thought wow, this is a super unique solution to a problem you have in island settings, where school systems are not big and robust. You are lucky to get a teacher out to villages every once in a while, so information about the oceans is limited. People know what they have for centuries because they pass it down, but they don’t know the leading-edge science. They don’t get periodicals or have TV.

So the Kalabia does a huge service in getting kids to appreciate the ocean in a new way, and to understand how diversity works, how if you take away one animal it affects another.

How did you find Jawi, the young boy who serves as the film’s central character?

When I went down to scout, Jawi was one of the kids jumping off the pier where we docked our boat. He was the most happy, energetic, athletic kid. Later, we found out he is a great singer and ukulele player, and has all the charisma you can imagine. I was looking for a kid who was taught by the Kalabia, and it turns out Jawi’s uncle is one of the main teachers. He was already going to take a trip with him on the Kalabia, so I thought I could film that.

It ended up all working out in a really positive way, to tell the story of education and how important it is to these villagers. Getting kids to start to do the right thing is a way to solve a lot of conservation issues.

Clown fish in West Papua
The waters of West Papua and the Coral Triangle are among the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world.
© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films / Photographer Michele Hall

Why did you pick this place?

This region of West Papua is the single most diverse underwater habitat anywhere on Earth. It has more kinds of corals and fish than anywhere. It’s a filmmaker’s dream to go there and dive, because you’ll see things you’ll never see anywhere else.

It’s one place that we’ve just got to save, because of its diversity, and there’s this boat that’s mission is saving it, so it’s a wonderful positive story. You don’t get many positive conservation stories.

How important is it to have positive environmental stories?

If you can give the audience hope, and allow them to learn, it’s so important because it gives a sense that not all is lost.

The marine protected areas they established in the last ten to twenty years have been working, that’s one of their key solutions. If your animal life is running down, take groupers for example, then don’t catch groupers for 10 years, and enforce that. Groupers will then come back, and they’ve proven that.

We can all find a sustainable relationship with the ocean.

How much did you draw on local Melanesian culture in the film?

Quite a bit. There is an agreement among villagers, called sasi, that whenever there has been a shortage of something, they would all get together and say, “we have to protect this, so let’s have a hiatus on this for the next five years.” They all agree, and if anyone violates the sasi they get sick. They believe that so they don’t violate it.

To let everyone know about the hiatus, they put flags of certain colors on palm trees by the shore.

They’ve been doing this for centuries. And now scientists have been saying they’ve been doing it right.

Is this place under threat? What about changes in sea level?

A few of the islands are only six feet (two meters) above sea level, and they are planting mangroves and trying to curtail erosion as much as they can. They plant palm trees and other trees to try to keep sand on the land. But there’s a good chance that in 100 years those islands will be gone.

Jawi Mayor from Journey to the South Pacific
Jawi Mayor (center) is a 13-year-old island boy who gets a closer look at his backyard reefs thanks to a trip on the Kalabia.
© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films / Photographer: Barbara MacGillivray

What do you want people to take away from the film?

What I really want people to think is to fall in love with the ocean and the people of these areas, and understand how important the ocean is to them and to all of us on land. We live on 29 percent of the planet, the land, but the ocean is 71 percent. So it’s obviously crucial to us that we keep the ocean happy.

The ocean provides us with 50 to 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe. If we mess with the balance of that, it’s gotta be bad for us.

It’s so important for us to treat the ocean differently, to pay attention to it much more. We’re hoping people become marine biologists, to help us understand how important plastics are, ocean acidification, and so on. Our website is filled with ways to treat the ocean better.

Our hope is that people enjoy the joy the film is about, but also pay attention so they do stuff in their own lives to make the ocean more healthy.

Any particular challenges making the film?

The biggest was getting to this place. It took 65 hours of travel to get to this village. There is no cell phone or TV. It was hot and humid and we were on boats most of the time, so our equipment was always breaking down. That is what makes it so beautiful, the underwater clarity is incredible, sometimes 200-feet (60-meter) visibility.

But you’re so isolated that it’s hard to make a high-quality movie with high-tech cameras. We took a lot of cameras and a lot of people who could repair them.

The people couldn’t have been nicer or more cooperative. That was the most amazing and fun thing about it. These villagers, by any standards, they would be poor, but they are the happiest people I’ve ever been around. They love each other, their families are very strong. None spoke English, so we had to bring in interpreters, but that was part of the fun.

You used local music, how did that turn out? 

Their music is incredibly good. The people are really musical, it seems like everyone in the small town, of 150 people, plays an instrument. Jawi played a ukelele. It only had three strings, but it sounded great. When we were waiting they’d be playing instruments and singing.

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